In the aftermath of the Alliston case, what should you do if you are a cyclist involved in a crash with a pedestrian?
I have one word of advice for you: Leave.
That’s right. Leave the scene. Get out of Dodge. Get away from the situation as fast as you can. Say nothing to anyone. Give nobody your details. Don’t hang around long enough for anyone to get their phone out. Split. Bugger off. Go home the long way — down as many alleys and across as many parks as possible to avoid CCTV.
Say nothing about the crash to anyone. Don’t discuss it in forums. Don’t tweet or post on Facebook about it. Don’t search on Google for news of the crash or its aftermath. Don’t get your bike repaired. Carry on with your life as if nothing happened.
“But, John,” I can hear you say, “that’s awful advice. Ethically you should stop and help, and isn’t leaving the scene an offence?”
Road Traffic Act: leaving the scene
Last point first: no, it isn’t. Section 170 of the Road Traffic Act makes it an offence for the driver of a motor vehicle to leave the scene of a crash, but it specifically only applies to drivers of “mechanically propelled vehicles” as it quaintly calls them. (That means an engine or motor; your bike’s chain and gears don’t count as the propulsion comes from your legs.)
Section 168 makes it an offence to refuse to give your name and address to “any person having reasonable ground” to require it. But they have to ask for it first. Leave before anyone can ask your name, and you’re in the clear. Martin Porter QC, who drew my attention to this part of the Road Traffic Act, added: “I have never yet been supplied with name and address by [a] motorist I have reasonably suspected of careless driving. Asked a few times.”
Ethically, yes, all of this is dreadful. But the Alliston case has put cyclists in the position where we cannot be sure of being dealt with justly. In fact, we can be sure that we will not be treated justly.
There is no way that Charlie Alliston was guilty of manslaughter, and he was rightly acquitted.
But there is also no way he was riding furiously and wantonly. He was riding at 18mph. Traffic and parked vehicles around him left him with nowhere to go and when he yelled to warn Kim Briggs she stepped back into his path. If that’s furious and wanton riding, I’m a banana.
The brakeless fixie issue
You could argue that Alliston would not have ended up in court in the first place if he hadn’t been riding a bike that wasn’t street legal. Would the Met and the CPS have gone after him if he’d been riding a fixie with a front brake? I believe they would.
The tide is turning against cycling in London. The nonsensical claims that a few short stretches of protected cycleway have caused huge increases in congestion and pollution have stuck. Mayor Sadiq Khan has cancelled or postponed shovel-ready cycling schemes and TfL has mysteriously forgotten how to design new ones if its hopeless, inept Nine Elms and Fiveways schemes are anything to go by. I expect that before the end of Khan’s first term, TfL will announce that Cycle Superhighway 3, the world-class protected cycle lane along the Embankment is to be ripped up.
Meanwhile cycling and walking commissioner Will Norman doesn’t realise that his job is to enable active travel, not to run spin for Sadiq Khan’s preference for roads and buses. Khan is running a PR mayoralty, all talk and no delivery, and calling on others to fix problems like air pollution that are well within his power. But to do so would put him into conflict with the influential bus, taxi and haulage lobbies.
With public opinion increasingly hostile to cycling, the Met and the CPS would have gone after Alliston anyway. After all, a mother of two was, tragically, dead. Something Had To Be Done, and prosecuting Alliston was Something. Alliston had dug a huge hole for himself by his forum and Evening Standard postings. He really was a dream defendant — if you’re a prosecutor.
Given the general ignorance about cycling, a fixie with a front brake could still be easily represented as the equivalent to a Formula One car, and equally inappropriate for the streets. Alliston’s lawyer failed to challenge the Met’s nonsensical braking distance tests in either premise or execution; it’s vanishingly unlikely he’d have been able to mount a defence against the charge of furious and wanton cycling even if Alliston had been riding a bike with brakes.
And I don’t believe the bike made any substantial difference. The instinctive reaction when a pedestrian steps into your path is to try and avoid hitting them. Yes, you’ll slow down too and Alliston did, but Kim Briggs stepped back into his path, they butted heads and she fell to the ground. Had he been going slower (as he would not have had time to stop, despite the Met’s staged video), she might still have fallen, she might still have hit her head on the ground. We just don’t know, and we cannot therefore know that Alliston’s inability to stop faster was the primary cause of Kim Briggs’s death.
The not guilty verdict shows that the jury did not think it was. If Alliston was guilty of an illegal act in not having a front brake, and that illegal act led to Kim Briggs’s death, then he was guilty of manslaughter. If he was not guilty, then his illegal act did not cause Kim Briggs’s death.
That also makes the conviction for wanton and furious driving unsafe too, unless the jury took the view that the injuries that Kim Briggs sustained as a result of Alliston riding into her did not cause her death. That would be a somewhat bizarre conclusion, but that’s juries for you. However, I’m not a lawyer and there may be some twist to the legal reasoning here that I’ve missed. Happy to be corrected in the comments or via Twitter.
The justice system is stacked against cyclists
More broadly, the Alliston case is only the latest example of the justice system failing a cyclist, but it’s unusual in that the rider was accused of perpetrating a fatal crash, instead of being its victim.
London’s police have largely been on the back foot when it comes to cycling since the debacle of Operation Safeway, in which the police targeted minor cycling infringements after several cyclists were killed in London in November, rather than going after the motor vehicle behaviour that kills cyclists. They were pilloried for it by cycling groups, and rightly so.
Presented with an unsympathetic defendant in a cocky, pierced teenager riding a hipster bike, the Met and the Crown Prosecution Service must have thought all their Christmases had come at once.
They therefore charged Alliston with offences that had to be heard in Crown Court, rather than any of the more appropriate lesser offences that would have been heard by magistrates, as Martin Porter QC has pointed out.
There’s a legal maxim that if you want to get off a charge, you go for a jury trial if you can. Juries are composed of people who can’t convince the court they’re too important to be excused jury duty. They tend to be sympathetic to mundane criminality, which is why there are so many breathtaking not guilty verdicts in cases of causing death by careless or dangerous driving.
Charlie Alliston, Daily Mail stereotype
Unfortunately for him, with his tattoos and piercings, Charlie Alliston was as close as it gets to the Daily Mail stereotype of an arrogant, reckless, young tearaway, scofflaw cyclist. There was no way he was going to get a sympathetic hearing from a jury of Londoners who are encouraged to hate cyclists by every story about cycling on the local news, in the London papers, in the national papers, on the BBC and on LBC.
And so it went. Anyone who rides bike knows Alliston’s account of the crash was entirely plausible. Between a parked lorry and moving cars he had nowhere to go. Kim Briggs stepped back into his path (presumably seeing the cars, but not registering Alliston) and he was unable to avoid her.
But by bringing the absurd charge of manslaughter, the CPS could be confident they’d get Alliston for something. I can imagine the jury room discussions. “All right, it’s not manslaughter, but the arrogant git’s guilty of something. What’s this wanton and furious thing? Up to two years bird? Yeah, that’ll do.”
The resulting atmosphere is that of a lynch mob. I’ve seen posts hoping that Alliston gets anally raped if he goes to prison, and wanting to know his usual riding route so they can string wire in his path. Have you ever seen that for a killer driver?
I fear for the safety of the cyclist next time one of us is involved in a crash with a pedestrian who doesn’t immediately get up and walk away. By bringing this spurious prosecution, the CPS has failed in its duty to act in the public interest. It has made the roads more dangerous, not less.
Cyclists have long known that we will not get justice if we are victims of road violence. Now we can be sure we will not get justice if we are accused of being its perpetrators.
And that means our only recourse is to get away from a crash immediately.
Footnote: If you do choose to stay at the scene of a crash, and there’s even the slightest possibility you might be blamed (in other words, any crash at all in the current climate) say nothing to the police without a lawyer present. Don’t try and be helpful, don’t give a statement. Ask for a lawyer and shut up till he or she arrives.